Forty Acres and a Mule

Amanda Claybaugh

  • The March: A Novel by E.L. Doctorow
    Little, Brown, 367 pp, £11.99, January 2006, ISBN 0 316 73198 6

In his historical novels, E.L. Doctorow has written about ragtime and the Rosenbergs, about mobsters and world fairs. His most recent novel deals with one of the most fraught subjects in US history: the long march of General William Tecumseh Sherman in the final months of the Civil War. The election of 1864 was a referendum on whether the Union should fight to achieve total victory or seek a negotiated peace, which would almost certainly have required the Union to rescind its emancipation of the slaves. President Lincoln was not willing to sacrifice the slaves to secure peace, but the opposition party, led by one of his former generals, was eager to do so. And so were the voters, worn down by three years of casualties and drafts. Lincoln’s electoral chances fell even further when he was forced, in the middle of the election campaign, to draft 500,000 men to replace those whose enlistments were coming to an end. ‘I am going to be beaten,’ Lincoln confided to one of his officers, ‘and unless some great change takes place badly beaten.’ The great change was Sherman’s capture of Atlanta, the centre of Southern industry and the hub of the Southern railroads. Northern morale soared, soldiers voluntarily re-enlisted, and Lincoln was re-elected.

After Atlanta fell, Sherman cut his army loose from its supply lines and sent his soldiers, all 60,000 of them, to live off the land by taking what they needed from civilians along the way. Arrayed in a line 25 miles across, the soldiers consumed all before them and left devastation in their wake. They marched nearly 300 miles to the sea. Then they turned north and marched another 400 miles through South and North Carolina, across land that the Confederate army believed to be impassable. Sherman’s soldiers built roads across swamps and bridges across rivers, covering nearly ten miles a day despite unending mud and almost unceasing rain. By the end of the march, Sherman had cut the Confederacy in two, encircled its capital from the rear, and thoroughly demoralised the people of the South. Believing that the Confederates were beyond reason or persuasion, he meant to glut them with war until they were sick enough to renounce it.

Doctorow gives us the view from the ground. The March is constructed from brief episodes, each narrated from the perspective of a single character: this is Sherman’s march as experienced by generals, privates and prisoners of war; slave owners, house slaves and field hands; doctors and nurses; reporters and photographers; priests, nuns and French chefs. For Doctorow, the march is too overwhelming to be comprehended as a whole. As the 60,000 soldiers approach, one character senses a pressure that ‘had a murmur to it, or maybe a scent’, while another hears a sound that ‘wasn’t exactly a sound’, which then transforms itself into an impossible sight: a cloud of earth raining upwards to the sky. Any attempt to achieve a more comprehensive view fails. When a British reporter climbs a tree to watch a battle from above, all he can see is a ‘terrifying vision of antediluvian breakout’. Then the tree is struck by a cannonball, and the fall from it kills him.

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